Female Infidelity: Ideology, Subversion, and Feminist Practice in Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron

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Author: Nancy Frelick
Editors: Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau
Date: 2006
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 85)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,775 words

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[(essay date fall 2001) In the following essay, Frelick examines the portrayal of marriage throughout the Heptaméron, maintaining that Marguerite offers no absolute judgment on marital relations.]

Literature has been given diametrically opposed functions. Is literature an ideological instrument: a set of stories that seduce readers into accepting the hierarchical arrangements of society? If stories take it for granted that women must find their happiness, if at all, in marriage; if they accept class divisions as natural and explore how the virtuous serving-girl may marry a lord, they work to legitimate contingent historical arguments. Or is literature the place where ideology is exposed, revealed as something that can be questioned? Literature represents, for example, in a potentially intense and affecting way, the narrow range of options historically offered to women, and, in making this visible, raises the possibility of not taking it for granted. Both claims are thoroughly plausible: that literature is the vehicle of ideology and that literature is an instrument for its undoing.(Culler 39)

Although Jonathan Culler uses the depiction of women and marriage as an instance among others in his introduction to literary theory, the example above might just as well be describing the debates surrounding Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron, for the sixteenth-century text appears to oscillate between these two propositions. Is Marguerite a (proto-)feminist, eager to expose the condition of women and question the status quo? Or does she espouse traditional views on marriage and on the subordination of the wife to her husband? As is often the case, arguments supporting both sides can be found in the 72 nouvelles and surrounding discussions, as well as in the overarching story that frames the tales of the Heptaméron.

Indeed, much has been written on the subject of love and marriage in Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron, yet it is difficult to resolve the sorts of questions posed above without feeling that one has somehow oversimplified the issues raised in the text. In this article, I shall not pretend to resolve these questions, or discuss all the studies on the subject, nor shall I make an inventory of the kinds of matrimonial union in the work or summarize all the views on marriage expressed by characters and discussants of the tales. Instead, I would like to take a different tack: I plan to explore the ways in which psychoanalysis and feminism can inform the complications in the text without, I hope, oversimplifying them. In particular, I shall explore some of the ways in which Jane Gallop's theories about female infidelity as a kind of feminist practice can help us reframe, and thus shed new light on, the debates about love and marriage in the Heptaméron.

The characters in the frame of the Heptaméron that emblematize marriage--Parlamente and Hircan, the only married couple present at Notre Dame de Serrance--do not offer a progressive image of matrimony. On the contrary, they are quite conventional in their spousal roles and in their polarized views of masculine and feminine honour and virtue....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420067827